Retelling the History of Black Music

The Beautiful Music All Around John Work III

by Mark Reynolds

7 August 2008

Image (partial) from 2006 Blues Music Awards poster, May 11, 2006, Memphis, TN 

Photo from Boogie

As stated earlier, Work provided most of the Coahoma County field recordings to the Library of Congress, at Lomax’s insistence.  Work also handed over recordings made at a folk festival in Georgia before the Delta study.  But Work kept some of the good stuff for himself.

Work had amassed a collection of field recordings of black music from his own professional and personal trips throughout the South.  Evidence suggests that he may have played some of those recordings for his Fisk classes and house guests from time to time.  But they never received a public airing or official release. How those recordings survived the years is something close to miraculous: they were never stored with preservation in mind, and much of the other documentation of Work’s research disappeared over time.  But they did survive, and now we all can get an idea of the music Work found most fascinating.


cover art

Various Artists

John Work III: Recording Black Culture

(Spring Fed)
US: 18 Mar 2008

The CD Recording Black Culture, credited to John Work, III, was released last fall by Spring Fed Records, a folk music label based in Woodbury, Tennessee.  It collects 13 recordings from Work’s personal stash, plus a snippet of one of the Muddy Waters interviews Work and Lomax conducted in 1941.  Most of the music was recorded between 1938 and 1942, and none of it was performed by professionals.  From the distance of time, the variety and vitality of these performances may surprise listeners who may be conditioned to expect something, well, older-sounding, rustic and primitive.  To be sure, there’s music here that we just don’t hear anymore, like the South Carolina work crew and the Alabama Sacred Harp singers.  But the music clearly doesn’t sound old-fashioned by the era’s own standards.  There are copious amounts of swing and joie de vivre in these spirited performances.  Further, they sound surprisingly familiar at their core, implying that the musical distance between then and now is a lot shorter than previously thought.

The five recordings of gospel quartets offer captivating proof.  “Daniel Saw the Stone”, performed by a Holloway, Tennessee high school quartet, alternates between tight harmony singing on the choruses and bridges where the lead tenor floats above the others singing “the Lo-ord” in the background.  Gospel quartets were already popular around this time, thanks to nationally known groups like the Golden Gate Quartet; tracks like this suggest where doo-wop emerged from a decade or so later.  The singing is more enthusiastic than polished on “I Am His, He Is Mine”, recorded at a Nashville church, but that wasn’t the main attraction: here it’s the driving piano, instantly familiar to anyone who’s heard attended a black church service at any point in the last 70-odd years, that captures the ear (and audiences at the time, who apparently flocked to the church to hear the bold new style). 

The Fairfield Four give a marvelous rendition of “Walk Around in Dry Bones” shortly before their breakthrough to the big time of national radio.  Work had recorded a previous performance by the group as part of a 1941 church service; those were among the discs that ended up at the Library of Congress thanks to Lomax.  Work must have sensed he had something special in the Four, for he recorded this track later on and held on to it for himself.

Despite the importance of the Waters field recordings, Work wasn’t particularly interested in blues music.  But he knew the good stuff when he heard it, as he did one day in 1941 while waiting for a bus in Macon, Georgia on the way to a music festival, recording machine in tow.  He heard a guy named Joe Holmes singing and playing further down the platform, conducted an on-the-spot field interview with him, and recorded “Ain’t Gonna Drink No Mo’”, a splendid performance reminiscent of Robert Johnson – and quite likely the only time Holmes ever recorded.

That factoid helps explain the magical qualities of this CD.  It’s an informal window into a world where music was everywhere, not as the products of a commercial industry so much as a part of people’s lives.  One can hear tradition being upheld in one beat, and stretched into something different and exciting in the next.  The closeness of Work’s recordings, made clearer by painstaking remastering from the fragile source discs, reveal nuances in their on-site recordings that would not have naturally existed in a studio setting: a congregation’s call-and-response, the sound of a work crew’s tools hitting the ground on cue.  Beyond what’s available through the Library, the music here captures what Work was most interested in documenting: the sophisticated artistry encoded within black vernacular music, and the contexts in which the music thrived.  Certainly the singers and players deserve their due, but it’s Work’s knowledge, sensitivity and interpretive skills that take center stage. 

Lost Delta Found may have reclaimed Work’s mission from obscurity—teaching us much more about the South than we thought we knew in the process – but this CD brings his passions and contributions back to life in vivid dimensions.  It isn’t precisely the book’s soundtrack (many of Work’s Coahoma County recordings are available through the Library and other sources), but it provides a sense of how those days sounded, and of what Work considered important about those sounds.  It’s not a total stretch to consider Recording Black Culture as John Work III’s greatest hits.

* * *

So now we know a little bit more about how black music navigated the middle of the 20th century.  An important figure and his story are back in circulation, and some clearer lines have been drawn to connect the past to the present.  Further, a door has been opened for further research and exploration into the sounds that were happening just before WWII, a pivotal moment for black music and black life as a whole.  It’s evident that while the pop music world was in the mood for stomping at the Savoy and taking the A train, there was a whole lot of music happening on the margins, in the church pews and on the street corners.  Musicians of every pedigree, from pure amateurs to future stars, took in the influence of the current styles, built upon them, and helped set the stage for what was to come.

John Wesley Work III

John Wesley Work III

But that knowledge doesn’t bring us any closer to knowing precisely where the story of black music begins.  The music John Work III captured may sound to the ringtone generation like it’s coming from some other dimension, but for all its historical value, it still takes place a good 20 years after the first blues records.  The music itself dates back even further than that.  How far, and to where?  Is there a clear and singular point from which everything from Duke Ellington to the Fairfield Four to the Carolina Chocolate Drops can be said to descend?  Probably not, at least not that we’re likely to ever discover short of something miraculous.  But we can pinpoint the historical era when black music, and by extension black pop culture, first gathered the attention of a broader audience and started changing the course of American mass entertainment.  We’ll likely never know when someone played a blues chord for the very first time, but we can speak with confidence of the first black musical star of the modern world.

Watch for the next installment of Retelling the History of Black Music: Bert Williams, Original Gangsta


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